K: Where did you go to look for a girl?

N (an elderly man): Formerly we went round to look for girls. When we found them, we sat on one side and they sat on the other side. And we asked them in turn which boy they liked. If one agreed, they shook hands.

K and N: Laughter

K: Did they love just by looking at each other?

N: Yes, it was just like that. After this it was not yet marriage. One had to go and ask about the character of the girl. The elders would not advise to marry if for example a certain girl was a thief or lazy….

In my mid-twenties living in southwestern Tanzania, I was learning about the Fipa people and their history for my doctoral dissertation. In eighteen months, I conducted over two hundred interviews across much of the northern portion of the Fipa plateau, sandwiched between Lakes Rukwa and Tanganyika. I was curious how their lives had changed as a result of Catholic missionaries who had declared 100% success after two generations of evangelizing.

I was drawn to this work for a number of reasons but one of them was the need to learn about their lives so as to construct a narrative that reflected their experience and added to scholarly understanding of the colonial experience in Africa. I was, as many scholars do, also seeking integration and wholeness for myself. What did I need to know about the lives of rural Africans in order to be a better North American?

In order to do so, I had to talk to people in a language other than my own and to listen, really listen to what they were telling me. I learned KiSwahili in graduate school and used it as an intermediary language to learn KiFipa (the local language) when I got to Tanzania. But language was just part of the equation.

Listening is not easy in one’s own language and culture. We do not learn to listen in any formal way in our education. If we are lucky, we have role models in our families and among our friends of people who really listen.

I learned about listening from a fellow graduate student who had just returned from her fieldwork while I was still in school. She showed me some of her interview transcripts and the way she sought to draw her interlocuter out and allow for her ideas and train of thought as much as possible. To allow the person with whom I was speaking to direct the conversation as much as possible, she counseled, insert my own direction as little as possible. This is not as easy as it sounds, as I always had an agenda, a set of questions I sought to ask. But it was quickly clear that if I let them talk about what they wished my data would be far richer.

K: At what age did you get religious instruction?

E (an elderly woman): Formerly we were baptized at about ten years of age and some were even twelve years, already big girls with breasts already. We followed instruction for three weeks.

K: At Kasu or?

E: At Kasu we were already going every day. It was there we were selected and came here and followed religious instruction for three weeks.

K: Here at Chala?

E: Yes, it was then that the teacher selected so and so you go for the Holy Communion instructions.

K: At Chala?

E: Yes, at Chala. There were many people….we were very many… The mission station was only here.

Smythe weaving near Kumasi, GhanaCredit: Unknown/Students.

Just repeating back the last phrase or words that I had heard from the person with whom I was speaking was often enough to encourage them to continue telling the story they were telling, to bring to life a certain understanding of the meaning and import of their own experience.

M (elderly woman): When we were working [for the Catholic sisters] we got 400 shillings a month.

K: Was that much money?

M: Yes, very much. I bought clothes and everything [pins, shoes] and some of it remained. I gave the remainder to Kontwa’s wife to keep it for me. When my father came from Mpanda and took some of this money, I cried. It was feast day and I wanted to buy clothes…. I cried very much. I felt much grief.

K: No buying clothes!

M: No buying clothes. I felt very sorry and spent the feast [Christmas] without clothes.

Hemmings, Clare and Fanselows. Credit: Kathleen Smythe.

Interviewing was just a small part of the “listening” project that was my historical and anthropological research. My work there was a dance of accompaniment, of merging my agenda with theirs.

Learning from and about Fipa often involved walking to their homes miles from where I was living and an interview of an hour or more. Usually, the interview was followed by a meal. I often re-played the interview so that we could all hear what had been produced. Fipa loved hearing their own words again.

The walking was an integral part of the experience as I learned much by being out and observing people in their fields and around their homes. The paths were narrow, often surrounded by fields or bush, forged over decades to connect people to markets and churches.

Without fail, my hosts, after hours together already, would “give me a push” home. The verb, “sindikiza” means to escort in KiSwahili. But when someone gives you their time for your work and then walks a few meters, sometimes a kilometer or more with you as you return home, there is something more going on than escorting in the common North American understanding of the term.

Many have been deeply moved by Ram Dass’s declaration that “We are all just walking each other home.” But it has often been interpreted as accompanying each other through the end of life process. In this case, I think that the resonance between Dass’ oft-quoted statement and the KiSwahili verb helps us to see that we can accompany each other home long before the last stages of our lives on earth. It is such a beautiful sentiment that it seems to shortchange its power if we do not consider that our lives are a long journey toward home, not just in terms of death but in terms of discovering who we are and the promises that we have to keep to ourselves, each other and the earth.

My Tanzanian acquaintances, in literally bridging the distance between their home and mine, were enacting Dass’s revelation. While each of us has a self and a way of being and giving in the world, that this being and work is separate from anything is an illusion.

When a Tanzanian walked with me from her home toward mine, I felt the hospitality of our time together enveloping the landscape through which we passed. It was a material recognition of our common home and our similar need to belong with each other and where we find ourselves. They were, perhaps, recognizing the long distance I had come, both geographically and metaphorically, to be at their home and speak to them in their language. They also sought to continue the dialogue that I had initiated by seeking an interview. And were as interested in listening to me as I was in listening to them.

Cora and Pearl at Colin’s party.

As with so much of my experience in eastern Africa, this practice illuminates something that we have lost in Western civilization. Usually, an invitation to visit has discrete boundaries both in space and time, marking territory and belonging. So guests come to my home as interlopers and then cross some void to return to their home. The invitation and acceptance might be generous but the generosity is bounded and scarce. Usually little more than what was promised (dinner, drinks) is delivered. But from the beginning of the process in Ufipa, arriving at their home to being given a push toward mine, there was no script.

If one were to re-imagine the dinner party in light of my interviewing experience and Tanzanians’ giving others a push, guests would be escorted at least to their cars, leisurely, extending the evening’s celebration and the space that each of us calls home and the opportunity to listen to each other’s stories and experiences.

We are all walking each other home, or giving each other a push, not just at the end of our lives, but every day of our lives.

Kathleen R. Smythe

Kathleen R. Smythe

Kathleen R. Smythe teaches and writes about history and sustainability. She is Professor of History at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. Her most recent projects include Whole Earth Living: Reconnecting...

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